Thursday, December 6, 2012

The best way to learn is while doing something - American pragmatism in practice

Like: The American pragmatist, fundamentally optimistic and supportive attitude. Usually, Americans go beyond the critical assessment of ideas and instead, they urge you to realize your conceptions. In order for this, they focus on why an idea can work when they talk to you. This post may seem to be an intercultural detour but these thoughts still organically belong to community organizing: our ability to achieve social change is determined by the atmosphere of the society where we are active.

I would, of course, carefully make generalizations about the American culture. Although my experiences are based on a relatively broad range of impressions (I visited many states, spent almost a year in the U.S., met a lot of people of different social statuses), I essentially lived in a bubble: I have mostly met socially conscious, progressive-minded people and in fact, I got to know the world of the democratic middle class. And of course, I was a stranger, and people in the U.S. usually like to be nice and understanding towards strangers, and to show their better side. And a stranger also tends to make generalizations based on particular things. And of course, I can't often decide to what extent my cultural impressions reveal more about myself than the American culture, and to what extent these notions are distorted by my personality.

Comments like this, therefore, are necessarily subjective, but together with this, they carry valuable interpretations about how pragmatism and entrepreneurial spirit, both are so much of a characteristic of the American attitude, take shape in practice in the U.S.

During most of my time, I had the impression that Americans are so supportive to new ideas: when  they share a plan with one another, let it be immature or thoroughly thought through, they mostly give supportive feedback to one another: this is great! go ahead! Apart from what they really think about the feasibility of the conception (whether the other possesses the skills, the network, the comrades, the financial background to be able to realize their goals), at this point these are not subject to assessment. What is appreciated is that you decided that you WANT TO DO something. And this determination is always welcome, the enthusiasm should not be smothered. Any social action can become important, because you never know what others may draw inspiration from. Therefore, in their feedback, they concentrate on the positive side: why something can work out well, not only why not.

This does not end up in empty, superficial optimism: it only means that critical remarks come a little bit later. It is in particular true when you do not know each other well: in this case they don't feel that they would be entitled to do anything else but conveying positive energies. They don't show dissatisfaction, instead, they are happy that there is a new person who wants to do something. They will not disappoint you even if what you have done is not super-perfect because it can develop on the way. Critical feedback comes when there is something more concrete to be analyzed. Or after they get to know you better.

On top of this enthusiastic and positive attitude, so much of a characteristic of the Americans, they are so expert in energizing. In demonstrations, trainings, community events, they usually manage to create such a good and energizing atmosphere: I often had the impression that there is a public agreement that they gather together to create an explosion of cheerfulness. They give themselves over to enjoy the moment, and even if they are only viewers, they become active participants of the event. The American audience is very interactive: they reply, shout, cheer, boo. It often happens that the animator loudly asks questions so that the group can give the same or similar answers, e.g., are you feeling good? or why did you come here? The simultaneous loud replies help build group cohesion. At first sight, this is, of course, culturally alien for an introverted Central European, but if you accept that this is the rule of the game, and you give yourself over to it, you can learn a lot. I found it an honest and useful community attitude.

In Hungary, I often feel that people tend to recognize why things don't work - including the intellectual elite. We have a very good sense of critique to recognize why things can fail, which is very useful so that we don't delude ourselves and we see the pitfalls, but at the same time, many people often forget to observe with the same intensity what the chances are to avoid those pitfalls. So, instead of turning their good critical observations into more conscious and more precise action, they get stuck in the negative aspects and they come to the conclusion that it is not worth starting anything. The spirit of doing is often smothered by the sense of critique paired up with skepticism, which otherwise, paired up with some entrepreneurial spirit, optimism, pragmatism and in-the-middle-of-the process analysis, could otherwise be very fruitful.

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